BMW 7-Series Drives Itself Through Own Assembly

BMW’s new pilot program aims to enhance production efficiency by having partially assembled vehicles drive themselves to various points in the assembly plant.

A driverless BMW 7-Series navigates a predetermined route in its assembly plant. (BMW)

The 1997 James Bond film “Tomorrow Never Dies” obliquely presaged current-day automated-driving technology when the hero remotely piloted his modified BMW 7-Series sedan through a series of parking-garage dangers. A quarter-century later, BMW itself is adding a new angle to the notion of a driverless 7-Series with a pilot program that has the company’s flagship driving itself at various points in its assembly process.

Stationary sensors and a specially developed digital twin of the environment help guide the driverless vehicle. (BMW)

Using the acronym AFW, German for “Automated Driving at the Plant,” the BMW Group said it aims to “increase the efficiency of the logistics of newly produced vehicles in plants and distribution centers,” by having partially completed vehicles “move independently within the [manufacturing plant’s] logistics zones and assembly – driverless, safe and efficient.” The pilot phase of the project began in July 2022 at the company’s Dingolfing, Germany, assembly plant using the internal-combustion variant of the latest 7-Series, as well as its EV counterpart, the i7.

The AFW project was enabled by BMW’s Startup Garage in-house incubator, which brought in startups Seoul Robotics (South Korea) and Zurich, Switzerland’s Embotech as technology partners. BMW said the pilot phase will cover a period of several months and extension of the program plans to include additional models assembled at Dingolfing. “Later, the technology will also be used in other plants,” the company said in a release.

Virtually blind

Radio signals and motion-planning software are responsible for each vehicle’s steering, braking and acceleration. (BMW)

Although the 7-Series models come standard with advanced driver-assistance system (ADAS) capability, the driverless maneuvering in and around the assembly plant is not facilitated by the vehicles’ onboard ADAS equipment. “We have a different approach than with autonomous driving, because we don’t use sensors from the vehicles,” said BMW Group project manager Sascha Andree. “The car itself is virtually blind. Instead, we installed sensors along the driving routes that we use to move the cars in the plants.”

BMW intends to extend the AFW project to other vehicles and assembly plants. (BMW)

The AFW system uses a lidar-sensor infrastructure that locates vehicle position and at the same time detects obstacles in the factory environment. Seoul Robotics’ lidar-detection software uses the static monitoring sensors to create a digital twin of the environment, including object classification and positioning for the vehicles. Then, Embotech’s motion planner sends control commands to the driverless vehicles via mobile radio.

Embotech’s scheduling software steers, brakes, accelerates and parks the driverless vehicles. “The routes are calculated in real time. Situational programming or training of the vehicles is not required,” BMW said. “Instead, each vehicle is able to react independently to the respective environmental situation.”

The automated journeys in the plant are first carried out within assembly and then to logistics areas in the plant – including when the fully-finished vehicles drive themselves to a parking lot for loading by train or truck. “In principle,” BMW claims, “the technology can be used as soon as the vehicles can drive independently in the production process – i.e., shortly after the first start of the engine,” or in the case of EV models, as soon as the propulsion system is connected to the vehicle’s battery pack.